Treatment

A child who has been attacked by a animal should have professional therapy to help deal with the traumatic event. For most children, however, the fear of animals has not been triggered by violence, but by something as simple as a large dog running toward them. While the dog's intentions may have been to play, the sight of a large unknown creature heading directly toward the child can prompt some youngsters to be nervous toward all dogs.

It is important for parents to acknowledge, not belittle, a child's fear. Dogs can be unpredictable, and it is important that all children realize the potential danger that dogs can present. However, they must also be reassured that most dogs are perfectly friendly. A parent might say: "Dogs can be scary, but this little one lives across the street and he wants to be your friend."

Because the unknown intensifies fear, a child should be encouraged to learn about dogs and the proper way to behave around them. Allowing a child to tease or mistreat a dog in any way could result in a bite, which would only reinforce their fears. At the same time, a child should never be forced to pet an animal, no matter how cuddly the parents think the pet may be, nor should parents encourage hand-feeding animals whose bite may be bigger than the portion offered.

It may help to take a child to visit a neighbor who has a friendly, small dog that is good with children; regular visits will show the child that dogs can be friendly. At this point, the family of a child who is afraid of pets may want to consider getting a small dog or cat so the two can grow up together, and the child can help feed and care for the animal.

Eventually, children's fear of dogs may fade away as they get older.

Prevention

Many people develop a lifelong fear of an animal when they are bitten or growled at during childhood. To head off the development of such a phobia, parents should train their very young children how to handle animals in the following situations:

• Do not disturb an eating animal Children should understand that cats and dogs can become defensive when eating, so children should not startle an animal or put a hand near a bowl when the pet is eating.

• Never take a toy or bone from a dog's mouth Children should be taught that if a dog is unwilling to drop the toy, the child should have an adult retrieve it.

• Pet nicely Children should understand that pets are not toys, and that they should not pull an animal's tail or ears, poke its eyes, or throw things at it.

• Never sneak up on a pet Parents should teach children that dogs and cats can become defensive when frightened. They should approach a pet from the front with hands visible, speaking in a low, soft voice.

• Observe body language Children must be taught what it means when a dog raises its tail, with ears back, hair standing, teeth bared, and bark ing or growling—all signs that the dog should not be confronted. Children should avoid cats with hair standing, tail stiff, ears back, dilated eyes, and hissing.

• Never run Children must be taught that if they ever come face to face with a dog showing the above warning signs, they must not scream, run, or stare into the animal's eyes, because if they run the dog may chase and attack. A child should always walk away slowly, avoiding any eye contact with the dog.

• Do not invade a dog's space A child should never insert a hand into a car window or dog pen, because the dog might bite to defend its territory.

• Do not separate fighting dogs Children should be trained to get an adult to help break up a dogfight and not try to pry the animals apart.

• Ask permission No matter how friendly a dog appears to be, children should be trained to always ask the owner's permission before petting an unknown dog or cat.

fear of the dark Typically, a child who is afraid of the dark has developed a phobia because parents have insisted that the child must stay in a totally dark room at night. Parents need to recognize the fact that a room looks different to a child in the dark and take steps to reassure the child even if the fear seems completely irrational.

Experts agree that there is nothing wrong with allowing a child to use a night light, as long as it does not create frightening shadows. After the light has been turned out, the parent should stay in the room for a few minutes and talk about how different things look. The door to the child's room should be left slightly ajar, and the child should know the parent will be close by.

Treatment

Behavioral treatments have shown the greatest results in treating childhood phobias. some of the most effective behavioral treatments are systematic desensitization, prolonged exposure, modeling, and cognitive self-management strategies.

fear of death At about age six or seven, as children develop an understanding about death, some youngsters can develop a fear of death—either their own or that of a loved one. Realizing that death will eventually claim everyone, and that it is permanent and irreversible, the normal worries about the death of family members or their own death can intensify. In some cases, this preoccupation with death can become disabling. It is perfectly normal that children should be curious about death, but the average child generally does not really fear death until facing the loss of a family member or pet.

What Parents Can Do

Parents should be willing to discuss death with the child in a reassuring way. Because it is a child's lack of knowledge that triggers fear, adults should be honest with the child when someone close to the family dies. Many children believe they may have caused the death, especially if they ever had angry thoughts about the person. It is vital that parents explain this is not the case.

Many experts feel that a child should be at least five years of age before being exposed to a funeral home or funeral service—and only then if he is willing. Parents may want to describe a funeral or viewing as a way of saying good-bye to the deceased. Under no circumstances should a child be forced to touch, kiss, or even approach the coffin of the dead person.

Parents may find it helpful to discuss their own childhood fears about death, explaining that they understand how scary such fears can be.

fear of school The fear of school, also called school phobia, is not unusual in young children, especially those entering kindergarten for the first time. Such a fear may be caused by a number of different fears, so dealing with school phobia centers on finding out what is causing the problem.

Some children are not really afraid of school but of leaving home. Others are not really fearful of school but of riding the school bus, getting lost, failing, or being teased. Each of these possibilities must be examined and dealt with individually. School fears can be eased by teaming the child up with a friend who can share the bus ride or play at recess.

A child who is really afraid of leaving home needs to feel that parents are comfortable with the idea of school, and that a parent will be at home when the child leaves school.

fear of separation See separation anxiety disorder.

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